Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Spooky Art

The oblique angle

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Illustration for "The Whale God" by Vincent DiFate

On Friday, I’ll be reading at an event sponsored by the Chicago Writers Conference, titled “A Celebration of Asian-American Writers in Chicago,” with authors Nami Mun, Vu Tran, and Wailin Wong. (If that third name sounds a little familiar, it’s because Wailin and I are married, which marks the first and only time I’ve felt like part of a literary power couple.) The reading is timed to coincide with Asian Pacific Heritage Month, and while I’m pleased to be included, I’ve also found myself reflecting on the role that my background has played, if any, in my work. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m multiracial—half Chinese, the rest Finnish and Estonian—and my track record of tackling Asian themes in my own writing is a mixed one. Two of my short stories, “Kawataro” and “The Whale God,” address such issues directly, the former in Japan, the latter in Vietnam, but my novels prefer to engage the subject from an angle, using Russia as a canvas for exploring the conflict between eastern and western cultures. In a way, the figure of the Scythian or Khazar is simply a translation of my life story into geographical terms: I’m not from the steppes, but I’m fascinated by places in which that collision has shaped entire civilizations, rather than individual lives.

Really, though, when you look at my writing as a whole, a very small percentage is devoted to themes that can be traced back to issues of identity. And I’ve spent a long time wondering why. Part of it has to do with the nature of being multiracial: you’re left to figure out a lot of important things for yourself, and it’s hard to commit yourself entirely to one side or another. Another element is purely personal: as a writer, I’ve always placed a premium on detachment, and I continue to feel that I do my best work when I can regard it with some objectivity. Autobiographical writing has never held much appeal for me; you end up so close to the material—a danger for any kind of writing whatsoever—that you’re unable to judge it with the coldness that good writing demands. And the rest may just be an accident. What catches your interest as a writer, not to mention what gets published, is largely a matter of chance, and quirks of timing and process yield patterns that may or may not be meaningful. Whenever I end up writing about Asian themes, it’s because the story demands it, not because I set out with such intentions in mind. “Kawataro” was a scientific puzzle I had to solve, and the answer turned out to be in Japan; “The Whale God” took place in Vietnam for similar reasons, although I briefly pursued the idea of setting it in Greenland.

Mind maps for the story "Kawataro"

Yet none of these explanations get at the crucial point, which I can only describe as an intuition—which is visible throughout my work—that the best way to approach any subject of great personal importance is through an indirect route. In The Spooky Art, Norman Mailer makes a similar point, although in a very different context, in talking about writers who lived through September 11:

There must be five hundred young writers in New York who had a day of experience that was incomparable—nothing remotely like that had ever happened before in their lives. And it’s likely that some extraordinary work will come out of it. Hopefully, not all of it about 9/11. If you never write about 9/11 but were in the vicinity that day, you could conceivably, in time to come, describe a battle in a medieval war and provide a real sense of such a lost event. You could do a horror tale or an account of a plague. Or write about the sudden death of a beloved. Or a march of refugees. All kinds of scenes and situations and derive ultimately from 9/11. What won’t always work is to go at it directly. That kind of writing can be exhausted quickly. And the temptation to drive in head-on is, of course, immense—the event was so traumatic to so many.

And while the problem of dealing with one’s background may seem to have little in common with a single day of indescribable trauma, the underlying point is the same. If a writer is a machine for making choices, the most interesting decisions tend to emerge from a transmutation of the underlying material, until the original source becomes unrecognizable. I don’t always identify as an Asian-American writer, or even as a Eurasian one, but the themes that I revisit repeatedly—the idea of the world as a puzzle to be solved, the search for patterns in a mass of data, the extent to which we’re able to be free creators of ourselves—certainly arise from the problems I’ve mulled over in my own life. Most authors tend to define themselves in terms of their own otherness, and if nothing else, the choice to become a writer at all provides enough otherness for a lifetime of stories. The trick, I’ve come to believe, is to treat that sense of difference as an excuse to seek out the untold, the unknown, and the unrepresented wherever we find it, even if it wears a face nothing like our own. On the surface, it may seem that we’re exploring lives that have nothing to do with us. But it’s that oblique angle, or the approach from the unexpected direction, that guarantees that we’ll have been talking about ourselves all along.

Written by nevalalee

April 28, 2015 at 9:26 am

“Tzaddikim knew how to be patient…”

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"Ilya glanced at his fuel gauge..."

Note: This post is the fifty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 53. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of the first things a writer needs to realize is that it can be a mistake to base a character too closely on yourself, or to have the plot of a novel track literal events from your own life. Part of this lies in the importance of detachment: when you’re writing about yourself—or a thinly disguised surrogate—or relating incidents that really happened, it can be hard to maintain the necessary objectivity. A reader who doesn’t know you personally can’t be expected to take the same interest in the details of your inner life, at least not before the material has been refined and rethought, and it’s easier to do this when you depart enough from the facts to make their implications seem new. Much of the creative process consists in searching for metaphors or analogies for your own experience, which allow you to deal with what concerns you while regarding the result with a clear eye. In The Spooky Art, for instance, Norman Mailer advised young New York writers to deal with the events of 9/11 indirectly, keeping the emotional core while shifting it into another context:

There must be five hundred young writers in New York who had a day of experience that was incomparable—nothing remotely like that had ever happened before in their lives. And it’s likely that some extraordinary work will come out of it. Hopefully, not all of it about 9/11. If you never write about 9/11 but were in the vicinity that day, you could conceivably, in time to come, describe a battle in a medieval war and provide a real sense of such a lost event. You could do a horror tale or an account of a plague. Or write about the sudden death of a beloved. Or a march of refugees. All kinds of scenes and situations can derive ultimately from 9/11. What won’t always work is to go after it directly. That kind of writing can be exhausted quickly. And the temptation to drive in head-on is, of course, immense—the event was traumatic for so many.

And an experience doesn’t need to be traumatic to lend itself to fictional transmutation. Nearly every choice I’ve made as an author—and writing is really just a series of choices—can be traced back to something in my own history or personality, transformed into something very different that still reflects its hidden origins.

"Tzaddikim knew how to be patient..."

Take Ilya’s religious background. I knew from early on that one of the primary characters in The Icon Thief would be Jewish, and it’s hard to think of any one decision that had a greater influence on the novels that followed: the art world and conspiracy elements that dominate the first installment are gradually toned down, but Ilya’s background and his ambivalence about the two sides of his personality—the Scythian and the Tzaddik—are central to the trilogy, and I don’t think the question is fully resolved until the last page of Eternal Empire. At first, like Wolfe’s Mormonism, this was a detail that I introduced almost at random, merely because I thought it seemed promising: I liked the idea of a hit man who read the Sefer Yetzirah, and I knew that it would allow me to bring in a lot of material that I’d always found interesting. And although these themes never quite come to the forefront of these novels, they’re always there in the background, providing insight into Ilya’s character and a kind of counterpoint to the main action, with its recurrent motifs of interpretation, history, and exile.

Most of all, it allowed me to approach aspects of my own inner life from an unexpected angle. If there’s one theme that I seem condemned to revisit endlessly in my own fiction, it’s the problem of interpretation, of how we find meaning in texts, stories, and the world around us. I’m not the first writer to be drawn to Jewish models as a lens for examining these issues: Borges, among others, has done more with this tradition than I ever could. Still, in creating Ilya, I found that I was inventing a figure who was oddly like myself, as different as we are in most external respects. Like me, he’s drawn to texts and traditions of exegesis, like the midrashim and the cabala, both because of the inherent beauty they possess and because they stand in contrast to what we can and can’t understand about the world around us. The world may be a text, but it pushes back against us in ways that we don’t encounter on the printed page, and just because we’re good at kind of interpretation doesn’t make us good at the other. Ilya’s struggle to come to terms with the way his world works, and with the contradictions of his own personality, gave me a way of dealing with my own. And as the novel draws to its climax, we’re about to find out who Ilya really is…

Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2013 at 8:43 am

Mailer’s cask of brandy, or the pitfalls of craft

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Frequent readers of this blog will know that one of my ongoing obsessions is the idea of craft, even if I’ve never really bothered to define it before. Craft, if I had to pin it down, encompasses everything in a writer’s life aside from inspiration: it includes a vast range of skills, tricks, and habits, from the simple discipline of writing for hours each day to the nuts and bolts of grammar and style to larger issues of structure and organization. More than anything else, it’s the set of tools that turns those who want to write into those who do write, and those who write occasionally into those who write for a living. Craft is clearly a precious thing, acquired piecemeal over time, and it’s something that no writer can do without.

It can also become a trap. The trouble with craft, once a writer has it, is that it can be used as a substitute for things like intellectual honesty, emotion, and engagement with the real world—and the stronger the craft, the easier these evasions become. Good writing, as we all know, can disguise bad thinking, for author and audience alike. More insidiously, craft can be used to circumvent problems that otherwise could only be addressed by agonizing or uncertain introspection. Craft keeps a writer from having to depend on inspiration all the time, which is great—otherwise many novels would be started, but few finished—but it can also lead to an avoidance of risk in favor of facile solutions. Norman Mailer puts it beautifully in The Spooky Art:

Craft is merely a series of way stations. I think of it as being like a Saint Bernard with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued. Of course, this is exactly what keeps good novelists from becoming great novelists.

These are harsh words, but coming from Mailer, who had both plenty of craft and the intellectual courage to pursue his obsessions, it’s necessary to take them seriously. Mailer points to Robert Penn Warren, author of All the King’s Men, as an example of an author whose craft kept him from confronting the full implications of his material: “As it was, he knew enough about craft to use it as an escape hatch.” And I think we’ve all been guilty of this at one point or another. Once you’ve learned the basics of narrative, you can easily nudge a story into a dramatically satisfying shape that avoids the problems you’ve set for yourself. And yet the unmediated confrontation of these problems, without a safety net, is what results in great art.

So where does this leave us? Not with abandoning craft altogether, of course. Without craft, there would be no writers at all, and it’s hard to ask any artist to give up the tools that took so much time and effort to develop. And confronting the world’s problems without craft, as many well-meaning writers have done, is like going unarmed into battle. Still, it’s important to recognize its limitations. Craft is a snug little house that a writer builds for himself, but which he has to leave from time to time to get a sense of the snowy world outside. When he does, he’ll usually find that his craft isn’t sufficient, but he needs to push forward, knowing that otherwise he’ll only limit himself to an increasingly circumscribed range. And in the end, his house becomes larger—at least until his next excursion. Because the final secret of craft, it seems, is to know when to leave it behind.

Written by nevalalee

August 10, 2011 at 10:01 am

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